Martin Luther King's Words from a Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King’s Words From a Birmingham Jail

SOLA NETWORK     |     JANUARY 21, 2019     |    3 MIN READ

As many of us enjoy the day off because of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, we hope that you would spend some time contemplating the words of the American Civil Rights leader.

Below are two excerpts from Dr. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

King was arrested for protesting racial segregation in that city. Because of his protests, local clergymen had published a piece — “A Call to Unity” — in the local newspaper, distancing themselves from King and his methods. While in jail, King read the letter and created his own response.

We hope you will read the whole letter. Here is a link to a version that Justin Taylor published with headings that can help serve as an outline. Here is a link to the letter with no annotations.

Here are two excerpts from the letter.

Excerpt #1

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.

Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Communal reason

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Excerpt #2

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?”

The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.